Co-authored by Kristen Clarke & Richard Cohen
On Monday, December 5th, a Muslim New York City police officer was shoved down the stairs at a subway station. As he pushed her toward the ground below, the perpetrator yelled, "Go back to your country," and threatened to kill the woman, inflamed by the appearance of her head scarf. Unfortunately, similar cases have occurred regularly in the days after the election: a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center documented 867 post-election hate incidents, some of which took place in such sacred places as houses of worship and homes. Too often, the offenses were coupled with references to Donald Trump.
If the long election season showed anything, it's that hate still exists in the hearts of many Americans. Throughout the campaign, we heard invective from those who still stand obstinately against the changing demographics of the United States. As our country has grown more diverse in recent decades, the grip of xenophobia and racism has also grown in certain quarters. The words of "alt-right," or white nationalist, extremists are now fueling these trends. Votes have been counted and the winner decided, but we're now faced with a question that can't be answered at the ballot box: how do we move on and build a more inclusive, accepting nation where everyone, no matter their race, religion, or orientation, enjoys equal justice and opportunity?
A look to the past provides guidance for the future. When officials in the South refused to address persistent discrimination after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, President John F. Kennedy issued a clarion call to private lawyers across the country to participate in the fight against prejudice. It was then that a group of attorneys formed the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit that uses resources from the private bar to combat and litigate the ongoing scourge of intolerance. Founded in 1971, the Southern Poverty Law Center has spearheaded its own efforts against bigotry, pursuing justice for the most vulnerable members of society. Organizations like these comprise a crucial line of defense.
Legislation passed by bipartisan congressional majorities and signed by Presidents have provided indispensable tools for public interest lawyers and attorneys at the Department of Justice to build a more inclusive America. Now that the country is witnessing a barrage of hateful incidents and seig heiling white supremacists just blocks from the White House, the question is whether the incoming administration will build on the foundation of the past to bring our country together.
Regrettably, we have seen a series of nominations and appointments that make clear we are heading in the opposite direction. Senator Jeff Sessions, Mr. Trump's designated attorney general nominee, has a regrettable civil rights record (he even opposed the Matthew Shepherd and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act) and has been the champion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hate groups. Stephen Bannon, Mr. Trump's chosen chief strategist, provided an open platform for white nationalists as the chief executive of Breitbart News. Mr. Trump's National Security Advisor pick, Lt. General Michael Flynn, has compared Islam to cancer and associated with an anti-Muslim hate group. If Mr. Trump is to make good on his first promise as our President-elect - his promise to "bind the wounds of division" in our country - we must see not just perfunctory condemnations of hate, but concrete actions to repair the damage his divisive campaign has caused.
Despite the lack of leadership on the human rights front so far from the President-elect, there are hopeful signs from communities across the country. Already, we've witnessed courageous individuals willing to speak out against hate, sometimes jeopardizing their own safety to do so. Neighborhoods have assembled to repaint fences vandalized with swastikas, hotline volunteers have offered help to hate crime victims, and protestors have taken to the streets in peaceful demonstrations against discrimination. In our democracy, we have a moral obligation to ensure no one experiences the horror of hate crimes, even if we don't personally belong to the group under attack. The power of empathy cannot be understated. It's a point that we hope is not lost on the incoming President.
Hate crimes are not random; they're the result of deep-seated resentment toward a specific group. Normalizing these incidents and promoting the people who fan the flames of hate only exacerbates their detrimental effects. Instead, we must detect hate crimes, report the attacks to relevant authorities, and vehemently oppose an intolerable reality wherein people face violence or hatred because of their skin color, their house of worship, their LGBT status or other protected status.
Kristen Clarke is the President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Richard Cohen is the President of the Southern Poverty Law Center.